excess

by tobybee

The more I think about it, the more I realise how it’s the excessive that captures my analytical attention. When I say the excessive, I mean those moments when something is, literally, ‘too much’: when the emotions, the suffering, the happiness, the bodies, the actions, overwhelm the boundaries (and thereby remind us of the permeability of boundaries).

For instance, you might have read The Messenger, and/or seen Yannick Haenel (the author) speak recently (he was in Melbourne talking about the book a month or so ago). He spoke, in part, about the moment in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah when Karski cannot speak. Silence fills the room, the camera, the air. And Haenel was intrigued by this silence, calling it ‘the silence that speaks’. In a sense, it is an excessive silence, a silence that bears too much. But watching the footage of Karski again (sorry, I’d post a link to it, but I can’t find it online), it’s not the silence that speaks for me, it’s the way his body moves. He shifts in his chair, unable to sit still. The testimony inside him is too much, it fills his body and makes it impossible for him to rest. It was that bodily excess that caught my eye, that ‘spoke’.

In another instance: my family recently re-found some old boxes of photos and letters. One of the letters was from my mum’s mum to my mum, written while my mum was on holiday in Israel (her first overseas trip, at the end of first-year uni). And the letter pretty much reads as follows: ‘how are you? I hope you’re ok. We’re well. Did you get our letters? Why haven’t we heard back? Are you well? We’re all ok. Have you called your cousins? I hope you’re ok.’ It was beautiful. It so perfectly captured the anxieties of a woman, a mother, living with the Holocaust, not knowing if everything was ok, but hoping it would be. It was excessive. The anxiety came out of the page. But it was lovely, because it wasn’t just the anxiety that was in excess, it was also the love and the care.

Which brings me to a recent piece by Judith Butler published in the London Review of Books, entitled ‘Who Owns Kafka’. In this piece she talks, amongst other things, about the weight that Kafka’s previously unpublished works—his writings that were meant to be destroyed upon his death—are being made to bear. This is both a physical weight (“As one of the attorneys representing Hoffe’s estate explained: ‘If we get an agreement, the material will be offered for sale as a single entity, in one package. It will be sold by weight … They’ll say: “There’s a kilogram of papers here, the highest bidder will be able to approach and see what’s there.” […] We are all too familiar with the way in which the value of literary and academic work is currently being established by quantitative means, but I am not sure anyone has yet proposed that we simply weigh our work on the scales.”), and a metaphorical weight, bearing the “burden”, as Butler puts it, of “help[ing] the Israeli state overcome the bad press of the occupation”.

Kafka’s work is being drawn on by various governments—Israeli and German—as ways of claiming a heritage, a place within a body of literature, of being a determined (and determining) site for Jewishness. In turn, however, as Butler so elegantly explores, Kafka’s work is pervaded by the “poetics of non-arrival”. It is, in an important way, a diasporic, exilic idea. And it is this non-arrival which is Kafka’s excess in this telling. He cannot fit, his works cannot fit, because they never arrive. They are of no place: to be in place is to be something else.

I don’t know if that makes sense taken out of the context of Butler’s piece, so I highly recommend that you have a read. But what I want to draw attention to is the way that the non-arrival/no-place/no-time is simultaneously always present and always absent (we’re always somewhere, after all, even if we disavow being in (that) place). That excess of being that Kafka wrote of, that I connect here to living with the Holocaust, or living with nationalism, or living with capitalism (as Butler writes “Kafka could not have anticipated how limitlessly parasitic the forces of nationalism and profit would be, even as he knew those spectral forces were waiting”), is something that the imperial/capitalist impulse searches to quantify (to weigh, or to force someone to bear). Excess is articulated with being. Or not being. I’m not really sure.

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